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THROUGH THE WRINGER: Chris Patrick Carolan, Author of THE NIGHTSHADE CABAL

This week, the Blog Maven got to chat with The Nightshade Cabal author, Chris Patrick Carolan. With a wink and twist of his fine mustache, the Scotland-born Crime/ Fantasy writer opens up about his past and current literary inspirations, Cabal "Easter eggs", and The

Imaginative Fiction Writers Association.


Snag your copy of The Nightshade Cabal, HERE!


1. Your debut novel, THE NIGHTSHADE CABAL, just released yesterday.

What was your literary journey like while writing it?

This book was almost written by accident. I love the idea of mixing magic with

technology, and writing a technomancer’s story was something I first attempted in a

second world fantasy novel. That draft ultimately went nowhere, but it led me to try

dropping a technomancer into a Victorian setting. I never intended to write

steampunk, but it made sense to me that combining magic with the industry of the

day would result in something that looks very much like steampunk. Embracing that

really opened up Isaac Barrow’s world to me, and the story grew from there.


2. Is there a scene in NIGHTSHADE that made you cry while writing it?

I’m not usually a very emotive person, so I can’t say anything in the book made

me cry, but there is one scene in Chapter 16 that I consider to be very much a turning

point for Barrow. It still chokes me up a bit when I reread it.


3. Would you consider your protagonist a good person? Be honest.

Isaac Barrow is definitely a reluctant hero. He’s self-absorbed, socially

awkward, and just a bit of a curmudgeon. He doesn’t seek out the scrapes he finds

himself in and would rather spend his time working on his inventions or researching

the supernatural than chasing down murderers or fighting walking corpses. But he

also realizes he’s the only person who can contend with the supernatural menaces

lurking in the dark corners of 1880s Halifax.

Is he a good person, though? Yes, I think so. He’ll always step up and do the

right thing. But he’d rather be left alone.


4. How does a big ego help writers? How can it hinder writers?

I’ve heard a writer must simultaneously believe “The book I’m writing is the

greatest work in the history of literature” and “The book I’m writing is utter doggerel

that no one will ever read.” It’s a balancing act, and if I’m being honest I have to

admit I definitely lean toward the latter. But you also have to believe in your work and

send it out into the world. If that’s ego, so be it. The greatest book ever written may

be languishing unread in some drawer somewhere because its author didn’t have the

confidence to let anyone see it.


5. What is the darkest thing you’ve ever written?

I’ve dabbled a bit in crime fiction, and had one short story featuring a pair of

private detectives named Whiff and Warner published so far (‘Circle of Steel’ in Baby,

It’s Cold Outside: Dark Tales of Christmas Crime, Holiday Horror, and Yuletide Woe, Coffin

Hop Press 2018). That story isn’t particularly dark, really, but other pieces I’ve written

with these characters have gotten pretty grim. I think that’s a result of writing

something with no speculative element whatsoever—in these stories, all of the tension

and conflict has to come from regular people being inhumanly terrible to each other.

Frankly, reading true crime is far more horrifying than anything any horror writer can

come up with, and trying to channel some of that variety of evil into fiction can be

pretty heavy stuff.


6. What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a

better writer?

I was fortunate to find a local speculative fiction writing group called The

Imaginative Fiction Writers Association a few years ago. It’s a critique group with

monthly meetings where writers swap work, read a sample aloud, and offer feedback.

We regularly have close to fifty members in the room, and it sounds like that would

be chaos, but it’s actually an incredibly supportive and constructive environment for

the most part. We go out for beers after the meeting, and just spending a few hours

talking about writing with other writers is something you can’t put a price on.

I’ve made some great connections through the local writing community. Too

many to name, really. I already feel bad for not listing over a hundred names here! I’m

happy to call writers like Brent Nichols, Craig DiLouie, Elizabeth Whitton, Jayne

Barnard, P.J. Vernon, and Kevin Weir friends. Robert Bose, Sarah L. Johnson, and

Axel Howerton are wonderful folks I had the good fortune to work with on my one

published crime fiction story (so far). I worked at a music store with Mike Thorn, like,

ten years ago, and now we know each other again through writing. Randy Nikkel

Shroeder was actually one of my professors when I was in university, and we

reconnected through the writing community a while back, too. Calgary actually has a

surprisingly active, engaged, and diverse writing community. It’s so cool!


7. Is The Nightshade Cabal a planned series?

I certainly hope so! I have ideas for several books with these characters, and

I’m currently working on a sequel, which I’m hoping to finish up by this summer.

There are a few seeds I planted in the first book that I’d really like to have the chance

to see sprout. I guess it will depend on whether or not readers want to see more of

Isaac Barrow and his world. The next book has a werewolf in it, so there’s that to

look forward to.


8. If you could tell your writing-self ten years ago anything, what would it be?

My advice to my younger self would have more to do with publishing than

writing. The Nightshade Cabal languished with a supposedly interested publisher for

over two years before I decided to pitch it elsewhere. They had even sent me a

contract early on, which was full of wholly unacceptable terms—it’s pretty standard

for publishing contracts to include things like film and television rights, which the

author is always expected to negotiate to keep for themselves. It’s a tactic some

publishers use so they can say they’re making concessions to the writer without really

giving anything up. Thankfully, I ended up signing with a publisher who doesn’t play

these games!


But this other publisher wanted me to sign over the rights to things like stage

plays based on my book, action figures, and theme park rides. Seriously. Theme park

rides. They said everything in the grant of rights was negotiable when I called them on

it, but communication became pretty sparse after that, and I definitely waited too long

before saying enough is enough. They came under fire last year for not paying their

backlist authors, so perhaps I dodged a bullet there.


Most publishers state “no simultaneous submissions” in their guidelines, and I

can understand why. But at the same time, having a manuscript tied up for years on

end doesn’t do the writer or the publisher any favours, and you have to know when

it’s time to move on from a dead end.


9. How did publishing your first book change your artistic process today?

I’d like to think I’m more focused now. I have a habit of flailing away on

several different projects at once, and not making much progress on any of them as a

result. I still have a few other things on the go, but I’m putting most of my writing

time toward the sequel to The Nightshade Cabal right now.

10. When did you first learn that language wielded power? What did that moment

look like?


This is going to sound incredibly corny, but it was the 1986 animated

Transformers: The Movie. Optimus Prime arrives on Earth and sees the destruction the

Decepticons have rained down on Autobot City. The landscape is in ruins and

countless of his friends lay dead. He knows this is the last stand. He simply states,

“Megatron must be stopped, no matter the cost,” and heads into battle.


In those eight words, we know how much he’s going to put on the line to put

an end to this. It’s not just his own life he’s willing to risk, but he’s also finally

accepting that the war only ends if he’s willing to set aside his own principles and take

Megatron down for good. Optimus Prime always believed in mercy and redemption,

but in this declaration, he sets aside the very core of his morality to do what needs to

be done.


Trust me, it was a pretty heavy moment for a seven-year old kid to take in.


11. We base many characters on celebrities; are there any characters in this novel

inspired by real people? Or a dream cast? Who are they?

I grew up watching Jeremy Brett play Sherlock Holmes on the old Granada

series, and while I didn’t realize it while I was writing the first draft, a lot of his

portrayal influenced Isaac Barrow. I was also watching a lot of Doctor Who at the time

and some of David Tennant’s energy found its way into Barrow as well. If I had to

pick a living actor to play Barrow, though, I think Stephen Kunken (Ari Spyros on

Billions) would be perfect.


Inspector Eddings was more or less directly influenced by Thomas Craig as

Inspector Brackenreid on The Murdoch Mysteries in the first draft, but I think Daniel

Craig or Sam Neill would be ideal. I have actors in mind for quite a few of the other

characters, some of whom only came to me after the book had been written.

Amybeth McNulty from Anne with an E would be a perfect Emily Skye, and Claes

Bangs from BBC’s Dracula would be great as Johan Morgentaler. Simu Liu from the

Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience is going to make a real name from himself as

Marvel’s Shang-Chi next year, but maybe we can lock him down for Lai Jūn now.

And it’s almost a rule that Tom Holland has to be in every book’s dream cast

right now, so he can be the steamcarriage driver, Declan McMurray.


12. What did you edit out of this novel that you may or may not regret nixing?

The earliest attempt at a draft was written in the first person and narrated by a

character who was subsequently cut out completely. James Pendleton was a client who

hired Barrow and followed him through the case as an observer who knew nothing

about the occult. He was a fun character—even if the conceit was very much a

Doctor Watson rip off—and the book is far better without him in it. I might find a

way to use him in a future story.

 

13. In your opinion, what are the ethics of writing about historical figures in

Fantasy/ Sci-fi?

This is something I’ve given a lot of thought over the last few years. I didn’t

directly use any historical figures as characters in this book, but I do make reference

to quite a few. For example, in the book it’s suggested inventors like Thomas Edison

and Leonardo da Vinci were technomancers. I think writing something that’s clearly

alternate history buys a writer some license to play around with certain things like this,

but I also try to stick close to the actual historical record for the most part. When

discussing actual individuals or events, I try to make it clear that any opinions or

judgements being declared are those of the character speaking them, and not myself

as the writer. It’s a rather tricky balancing act.


14. Do you read your own book reviews? How do you deal with the bad ones, if

any?

Ernest Hemingway once said, “Critics are men who watch a battle from a high

place then come down and shoot the survivors.” I think he was onto something there.

That said, I’m still new enough at this that I read every review. When I come across

criticisms, I try to learn from them. One review I read recently missed the point of

one of my characters completely, but that might indicate that I missed something

along the way, and it gives me a chance to address the issue in the next book. Any

chance to learn and grow as a writer is worth taking. Hemingway also once flew to

New York and hit a critic in the face with a copy of his book following a scathing

review, and I don’t know if either of them really learned much from that exchange.

Ultimately, though, sometimes the book you wrote won’t be the book the

reviewer wanted to read, and that’s okay, too. I recently received a two-star review

from a reader who didn’t like the book because she doesn’t read historical fiction. I

mean, it’s fine if my book is not your cup of tea, but why volunteer to read and review

something in a genre you don’t actually like reading? Sorry, but that one’s on you, not

me.


15. Do you hide any “Easter eggs” in your books that only a few people will find?

That’s half the fun! There are a few Easter eggs in The Nightshade Cabal,

including one very unintentional Harry Potter joke. I pepper a lot of literary

references into the book—Isaac Barrow definitely takes after me in being something

of a lit nerd. There’s even a passing reference to a local bookstore called The Owl’s

Nest that’s incredibly supportive of the local writing community.

One of my current works in progress is a space opera heavily influenced by

classic anime and SF comics, stuff like Heavy Metal magazine. Many of names of the

planets, spaceships, corporations, and characters incorporate the names of the artists

whose work I grew up with.


16. What was the hardest scene to write into this novel?

There’s a scene in one of the early chapters where Barrow suspects human

brain tissue has been used to create a memory cylinder for a sort of steampunk word

processor. Writing the passage where his suspicions are confirmed was pretty heart-

rending.


17. Google yourself. What’s the first thing that pops up?

My own website, which reminds me that I really need to update my website.

Ha!


18. What’s one thing would you give up to become a better writer?

My day job. Not even joking. My stories and novels are very much written in

stolen moments, lunch breaks, etc. Having the time to focus solely on writing for even

a few hours each day would make a huge difference.


19. What is your favorite childhood book? Did any of your childhood reads inspire

your writing style/ voice in The Nightshade Cabal?

I read a lot as a kid, and always tended toward science fiction and fantasy, and

even some horror. Some of my favourites were the Bunnicula books, My Teacher is an

Alien, stuff like that. Like every kid, I loved dinosaurs, and my mother bought me The

Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth to take to camp one year. I remember it was the

first book I read that was written in first person POV, and that blew my mind! Of

course, add in a triceratops hatching out of a chicken’s egg, and I was hooked. A few

years later my sister introduced me to The Belgariad by David & Leigh Eddings, and I

read almost nothing but fantasy for the next five years.


The biggest influence in my youth, though, was Prince of the North by Harry

Turtledove. I think I was fifteen or so when I checked it out of the library based solely

on the Larry Elmore cover art, and it turned out to be the first book I read that made

me sit back and say, “I want to do this one day.” Just the right book at the right time,

and I still reread it once a year or so. I’ve read several of Mr. Turtledove’s books since,

and I’d say his writing is probably the biggest influence on my own prose.


20. What’s one negative aspect of your protagonist? What’s one positive aspect of

your antagonist?

As I said before, Isaac Barrow can be self-absorbed to the point of being

downright neglectful when it comes to his friends. His obsessive nature makes him

good at his job, but if I’m being honest, I’m not sure the isolation is doing him any

favours. Maybe something will come along and break him out of his shell.

As for the book’s antagonist, I don’t want to say too much and give away the

mystery, but he’s every bit as brilliant and inventive as Barrow. Perhaps even more so.

If not for certain circumstances in his past, he may even have been an ally in the

struggle against the darker forces. So it goes.

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